WhatsApp executives come to Brazil to avoid new bans

As Brazil debates the extent to which communications privacy should be guaranteed, a taskforce led by co-founder Brian Acton defends the company's encryption policies and user rights.
Written by Angelica Mari, Contributing Writer

WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton is in Brazil for the first time to avoid new service interruptions to the tool as the country's Supreme Court promotes debates about the integrity of privacy in communications.

Bans have affected WhatsApp four times in Brazil so far as a result of the company's non-compliance with Court orders to provide communication exchanges involving crime suspects - something that WhatsApp claims to be unable to do since all messages are encrypted.

The Brazilian Supreme Court is now debating whether legal action can actually block WhatsApp and if the country's "Internet Constitution" - which has been used as a key argument to the suspensions - violates the Federal Constitution.

The situation is seen by WhatsApp and Facebook as "unique" across all the countries where it faces legal issues. Acton then came to Brazil with senior legal and technology representatives to explain to local authorities how the company's encryption mechanisms work, as well as reinforce its stance regarding the provision of data.

"Encryption keys relating to conversations are restricted to the parties involved in those conversations. No one has access to them, not even WhatsApp," Acton said at a Supreme Court public hearing on Friday (2).

Despite the suspensions that have occurred in Brazil, WhatsApp and its owner Facebook have said they have been willing to cooperate with local authorities by providing as much metadata - such as IP addresses, telephone numbers and usernames - as possible when required.

The Brazilian Court has been trying to reach is a "middle ground," whereby the company holding the information must have a registered office in the country, which technically allows it to provide the Brazilian information.

But Acton argued that the only way to break the end-to-end encryption for one user would be to do the same for every user, which would make billions of conversations vulnerable to hackers.

The executive also stressed that it is important to the company that these issues are debated in what is the app's key markets with 120 million active users.

"I came personally because Brazil is very important for WhatsApp and WhatsApp is important for Brazil," the executive added. Acton and his taskforce will be taking part in another public hearing today.

Telecommunications operators are vocal opposers of the cross-platform messaging system and have been intensively lobbying with the government to prove that WhatsApp is illegal. Unsurprising, given the popularity of the tool for voice calls: Datafolha research suggests that seven out of ten WhatsApp users make calls via the app.

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